Imagine a typical dysfunctional family drama—on steroids—delivering social commentary on subjects that are so topical right now. Playwright Taylor Mac, named “One of the most exciting theater artists of our time” by Time Out New York, bursts through the ceiling and breaks all the rules to give us something completely off the spectrum. Director Brien Lang has risen to the challenge of bringing this saga to life at Wilbury Theatre in a production unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
Having an awesome team can make all the difference. “It’s been such a thrill to share HiR with the Wilbury community,” says Lang. “This play has been stuck in my head for a while because of its poignant subject matter and brilliant, dark humor. To have the opportunity to bring it to life with such an amazing cast, fearless design team, and incredible production crew has been a real honor and I couldn’t be more grateful to everyone involved.”
HiR, which stands for him/her and is pronounced ‘here’, is a sign of the times, rawly depicting a lower-class family in today’s quickly-changing society. The acting from all four cast members is excellent. Jim O’Brien, who adroitly portrays Arnold, the dad, never breaks character with his post-stroke curled hands, zombie-like stares and slurred utterances. Son Isaac, portrayed by Zach Gibb, has returned from a war zone in order to help care for his father, only to discover a household in total disarray he barely recognizes—with the exception of some flashbacks to Arnold’s abuse. Gibb does a great job of making you feel his confusion and rage. It seems his mother, Paige, ingeniously portrayed by Jennifer Mischley, has been liberated from an oppressive marriage thanks to her husband’s debility, and is heartlessly neglecting him (messy house, messy mind!). She’s not alone though. Max, her teen son who is newly out transgender, is a willing ally, ably portrayed by Will Malloy. Paige tries her best to dismantle the patriarchy, but Isaac has a heart and does his best to right the wrongs.
Mischley says of her character, “I feel strongly that Paige is trying her best to evolve as a mother and conscious being. Healing is ugly and painful but she is resilient. She desperately wants to move on and out of the stagnation of cultural norms but there are so many heavy traumas anchoring her to the past. Audience reaction to her is so wildly mixed. People empathize or think she’s the monster.” She adds, “I recognize that Paige brutally abuses her position over Arnold in a completely absurd manner that is disturbing.”
To label Mac’s riotous piece a dark comedy is an understatement. This foolhardy and boisterous black comedy is a bold combination of absurdity and authenticity. It is poignant, sometimes even shocking, yet you can’t help but laugh at times. Envelope pushed! The theatre warns: This production includes discussions of topics that may be difficult for audiences, including profanity throughout, racial, homophobic, and transphobic slurs, discussions of houselessness, sexual and family violence, and discussions and depictions of drug use and addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, and ableism. The production also contains simulated vomiting and blood. Audience members are encouraged to step out if needed, as any of these can be triggering for some, but it hasn’t been a problem. There are also a few fun surprises along the way!
“We discussed in rehearsal that this play is ultimately about what to do with pieces of something that is broken,” says Malloy. “There are all kinds of hot button issues raised on the surface level of the play—gender and sexuality, drug use, education, violence—but ultimately, the play is more interested in the deeper family dynamics. Underneath the “new lingo” and shocking jokes, it’s really a classic story of a family trying to live with each other amidst life-altering upheaval.”
Malloy also points out, “There really aren’t that many opportunities out there to play trans characters and it feels special to have the honor of sharing that identity with Max. My life has been very different from Max’s, but like Hir, I have been a trans teenager and I have navigated many of the dynamics that Ze (Max) is trying to figure out. At the end of the day, though, Hir gender is just one part of the complex person Ze is. As a trans actor, I feel like I can both understand that dimension of Hir experience while allowing it to be just that—a dimension, rather than that identity becoming the whole character.”
Hats off to costume designer Matt Oxley—Hello, Sparkle Kitty (you’ll see!)—and set designer Monica Shinn, who’s simple setting allows for a lot of movement in a small space. No spoilers here, but puppet design by Jason Miller is super fun!
This is the last production for front of house manager Christine Treglia in this role, as she will assume her new role of general manager on February 1. Congratulations, Christine! Having served Wilbury Theatre Group roughly 15 years now, you’ve certainly earned it!
Wilbury presents HiR through February 4. The performance time is approximately two hours, including one 15-minute intermission. For more information, visit thewilburygroup.org.